I have been Catholic my entire life, but like many “cradle Catholics,” I have only been a “practicing” Catholic part of that time. Growing up, I wanted to be a nun. I would cry for my brother’s immortal soul because he uttered curse words, I would spend hours a day in prayer tucked into the little chapel under the stairs, and I devoured any books related to the saints that my hands could touch. My goal in life, even after learning I would have to die for Jesus, was to be a martyr.
Somewhere along the way, around high school and through college, I lost the fervor and zeal for my Catholicism. I branched out and became a non-denominational Christian. During that time, my favorite churches to attend were the ones with the contemporary Christian music, and the ones where I could easily hide among the crowd. While not a majorly demonstrative individual as an adult, I was able to find comfort in those around me experiencing their own waves of emotion and zeal. Yet, when I visited other churches and participated in their worship services or Bible studies, I felt something was missing in my experience.
It was actually participating in a small-group Bible study at a local mega-church that began to bring me back to the Catholic faith – there is absolutely nothing like being the lone person sitting in a small group, realizing papal justification found in Matthew 16:18,
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
The group members interpreted that passage as the Christian church – a universal body of Christian faithful. I interpreted it as the “Catholic” church, and as slowly as molasses drains from the jar, I began my gradual return to the Church. I began researching what it was I found most comforting about my Catholic Faith, and why every time I visited Mass, I felt a sense of peace, comfort, and as though I was home.
During this time, I was briefly engaged to a young man who was non-denominational, with Baptist leanings. As I struggled to learn what made me Catholic, I found myself in a series of moments where I was being forced to defend my specifically denominational Faith with his mother. I didn’t know enough about Confession at that time – I wasn’t even attending on my own annually at that point – and didn’t understand the concept of Transubstantiation during the Eucharist to adequately defend my Catholic identity. But, I like to think I tried to defend the Church as much as possible during those days.
Everyone around us knew this boy and I were “unequally yoked,” and after the engagement ended, I turned back toward the Church. Going back to the memories I had of childhood, I went through a period of discerning religious life. During that particular period, I crystalized the two reasons I found for the comfort I felt in the eyes of the Church. I realized that Mary, as the Mother of God, was an amazing role model for me, and the Church never misses an opportunity to advocate that a way to a son’s heart is through his mother – and, this applies even to Jesus and His mother.
But, perhaps the most important reason I found myself called back to the Church was through the belief that the “symbol” of the bread and wine being changed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ Jesus is more than a mere symbol. And, while I struggled at the time to even inadequately explain how the change occurs, I just felt, deep within my soul, that the bread and wine do become Jesus. Every. single. time I received the Eucharist, I was taking my Beloved into me.
It wasn’t until my oldest son was a baby that I realized being a practicing Catholic meant something more than merely attending Church on Sundays – or, Holy Days of Obligation. There were more requirements expected of me, and for the first time in well over a decade, I found myself sitting in the Confessional, taking time to speak to Jesus, and hear His guidance for me, through the words of an Army chaplain.
Sometimes, I feel badly my husband married a nominally practicing Catholic. Although the zeal for my Catholic Faith has returned during my marriage, he didn’t quite marry a woman who would insist on Sunday Mass as stringently as I do today; he didn’t quite marry the woman who would be inviting priests over for dinner, or a woman who seems to live, breathe, and study “all things Catholic.” He claims he knew my personality, but sometimes I feel as though he got a bum deal – because even I didn’t know the extent to which I would wind up practicing my Catholic Faith.
But lately, I have found myself struggling with my Catholic identity. I have questioned the commitment I have made to the God-appointed, mortal-led institution which comprises the Roman Catholic Church. I have struggled to find my footing as a Catholic mother, charged with protecting my innocent, naive, God-loving children against an onslaught of scandal and against the evil which is imbedded in the fabric of human nature.
For as long as I can remember, the Catholic Church has been rocked by scandal – in fact, for as long as anyone can remember, the Church has been viciously tormented by scandal. It is part and parcel of the latter half of the Matthew 16:18 – the gates of Hell will not prevail. I have always loved the Beatitudes, and felt comfort in the particular one found in Matthew 4:10,
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And, the Catholic Church has certainly weathered storminess in its history.
Yet, the struggle I have come to recognize is not so much against the Catholic Church as it is perhaps the fallibility of man. Man is imperfect, and Satan – a fallen angel – does not shy away from taking advantage of man in his weakness. In fact, it is common teaching – both Catholic and other denominations – that Satan’s fall from God’s Grace occurred because of Satan’s pride. Satan disagreed with God’s plan to create man in a manner that elevated man, even though man was an imperfect creature. To add insult to injury, God gave the most beautiful gift to man – by giving us the free will to choose whether or not to love God in return! Last month, I explored that theme of freedom over at Everyday Ediths.
Yesterday, as I was composing this month’s piece for Everyday Ediths, I was struck by the concept of hope – the double edged sword of that theological virtue. According to section 2090 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment.
On one hand, hope allows us to express confidence in God’s blessing and His beatific vision; on the other hand, it is also the fear of offending God’s love and incurring punishment. It is a recognition of His divine mercy, but also a recognition of the fallibility of man.
As I have struggled to make sense of my Catholic identity, I find myself comforted by the realization that we are all imperfect creatures. Sin separates us from God, and every single one of us do things – either in our thoughts, our words, or our deeds – which separate us from God. The Confiteor in Mass even reminds us that our inaction can amount to cause for sin as well.
Shepherds – parents and priests alike – are held to an even higher standard, having to conduct ourselves in a manner which will not only lead us closer to God, but also have the mission of leading little souls of our flock – children and parishioners alike – closer to God. We have an immortal enemy, working feverishly to permanently separate us from God. And, he never squanders an opportunity to take full advantage of our mortality, at the perilous expense of our immortal souls.
Yet, God is love.
And, as I sat at the beach a couple days ago, soaking in the rays of the sun, observing the vastness of the sky and the calm of the waves before the storm, I contemplated the magnificence of God’s ocean of mercy. For, as the prayer at the beginning of the Divine Mercy Chaplet expresses (my emphasis added),
You expired Jesus, but the Source of Life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world. O Fount of Life, unfathomable Divine Mercy, envelop the whole world and empty Yourself out upon us.
We can’t overlook the magnitude of God’s Mercy. Jesus expressed it beautifully in Luke 17:3-4,
Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.
The actions and inactions of men – and women – can be lasting and far reaching. And, I truly believe God weeps when He watches us squander our free will by engaging in actions which will lead ourselves – or others – away from God.
But, we all sin.
Every single one of us will make decisions that lead us further away from God!
As Jesus pointed out in John 8:7,
Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
Jesus, the only sinless human present, was able to cast a stone at the woman accused of adultery. And yet, He exemplified mercy. In that moment, like many others before and after, He exemplified love.
As a mother of three small children, worried about the future my children will inherit from generations which have gone before – my own generation included – I have been struggling with the concept of how to keep my children safe when not even church can be the safe haven I once thought. Yet, I cannot blame the Catholic Church.
At this point, I cannot even be angry with her because the Church Herself is built on the foundation of the rock. The rock of Peter, a mere mortal who is infamous for denying Christ three times during Christ’s Passion!
I can be disappointed in the actions of men (and women) who abuse their positions of authority. I can be disappointed in the inactions of other men (and women) who choose to remain silent during periods of time in which Satan is running rampant.
But, to withhold forgiveness for the individuals involved would lead me further from God. To cast judgment on individuals involved would lead me further from God. To allow anger I feel taint the view of the Church as an entire entity would lead me further from God.
This is precisely what Satan wants – for as many souls as he can get to be led irrevocably from God.
Being in charge of tiny souls and tasked to lead them close to God, I will not let Satan win. I will ask for the protection of God’s most ardent supporter, St. Michael the Archangel, and I will do all I can, both for my personal soul and the souls of my children, to ensure I continue to stand firmly on the Rock.
Tomorrow, 4 August, is the Feast of the Patron Saint of Parish Priests. St. John Vianney, as the patron saint of parish priests, is asked to pray for our priests here on earth, shepherds tending their flock – especially parish priests. These men have a bullseye on their back, a huge target of Satan to derail them from their safeguarding not just their souls, but the souls of their flock. Some individuals are marking tomorrow as a day of prayer and fasting for priests. They are also marking tomorrow as a day to pray for the victims of the sexual abuse scandals, whose lives no doubt have been torn apart physically, emotionally, and spiritually from the trauma of abuse.
Today would be a great day to reflect on the ways in which we individually choose actions – or, inactions – which lead us away from God. And, on the Feast of St. John Vianney, tomorrow would be a great day to avail ourselves of the Sacrament of Confession – pretty standardly offered at select times on Saturday afternoons at your local parish – to make amends to Christ for, “…all that I’ve done, and all I have failed to do…” and to seek Jesus’ counsel through the words of the priest. It is a great day to atone for the actions – or inactions – which have driven us further from God. It is a good day for us to heed the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7:5,
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye ,and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Tomorrow is a great day to acknowledge our imperfections, and make a plan to grow closer to God in the midst of turmoil, angst, and darkness.
Satan thrives in darkness. But, God is the most brilliantly shining, Everlasting Light imaginable. To cast out the demons around us, let us draw closer to God. To root out the evil in society around us, let us stand firm with the Catholic Church and allow Her faithful teachings bring us closer to our Source of Life.
We cannot let Satan win. We must be vigilant. We must be guarded.
After our time in Confession, let us join together at Mass this weekend, confidently reciting the words in the Profession of Faith, that we, “…believe in one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” acknowledging the Apostolic succession of our priests. Let us stride confidently toward the altar and receive Jesus into our hearts and bodies during Mass this weekend – allowing Christ to then lead us even closer to our Father in Heaven.
And, let us teach our children through our words and actions to, “denounce Satan and all his works,” to acknowledge our own imperfections, and to seek forgiveness of a most merciful God.
Will you join me?